Shame is perceived and processed by our brains the same way it deals with a physical threat: it turns on our nervous system, and elicits strong responses to flee or freeze.
Shame is so sneaky, and so good at what it does, that a lot of times we don’t even register the shame as happening. It can look like, “I should do this, or be this certain way,” or “Why did I do that?” or, “I have to do this right or people won’t like me, or will be upset.” It can also be a lot more troubling with thoughts like, “I am worthless and unlovable.” Shame is a heavy burden, and it is one that every single one of us carries.
When shame rears its head, we find ways to avoid, distract, or soothe, usually without recognizing that shame is what is driving those instincts. We literally “nope” out of it without even realizing it. This, along with some self-conditioning, is how we end up engaging in the same patterns over and over. Especially ones that may seem counter-intuitive, or counter-productive to our goals.
For instance, if I feel shame about my weight, my instinct might be to eat a candy bar. From the outside this seems illogical, but in reality it is very adaptive, and my brain doing its best to soothe that shame recoil. My brain knows that a candy bar will temporarily make me feel better. It will give me a sugar rush, and release some feel-good chemicals that my brain will eat up with glee. My brain, in that moment, doesn’t care that I will crash later and probably feel more shame. It is just looking to survive that unbearable moment of shame in the first place.
Shame is also hard, because, like I mentioned, it turns on our nervous system the same way as a physical threat. When our nervous system turns on it becomes difficult to reason, think logically, and form memories. Our brains also become very self-centered because they are focused solely on our survival. This is not a conscious process, and is not in our control. The thing we can do is realize that it is happening, and engage in more intentional ways to soothe our nervous systems and address the shame. One of the best ways to do that is through self-compassion, which I’ll talk about more in a future post.
If you notice shame showing up in your life, or are feeling stuck in patterns that feel miserable, check out our contact page to make an appointment today.